Back when I was a PM-03 in Multilateral Branch, and just about to rotate to the Caribbean division, a job came available in the Cabinet Affairs office at CIDA. Different departments put these divisions in various parts of their structure…some put it in the Deputy Minister’s Office / Corporate Secretariat, and so they have a nice high-level “pull” function from the rest of the department. Some embed it in the policy branch as a policy coordination type-job. Others embed it in policy, but almost as a corporate job.
DFAIT had it in one of their policy branches, albeit in a corporate policy type role, and people fought for those jobs. Considering lots of DFAITers wanted to be Hill staffers, it’s not surprising to see those with and without political ambitions wanting to be “in the know” for what was going forward to Cabinet, even if DFAIT wasn’t often actively involved in the MCs. At CIDA? The group had to advertise, multiple times, to find people willing to do the job. Even going outside the Department. Unheard of, in certain departments.
I was interested when I was a PM-03, but they wanted Cs for french, and I only had Bs. I was encouraged to apply by the HR people, even with my profile, I went and had my discussion with them, in French, and they said, “All right, come work here.” They wanted someone who was at least a strong B, which I didn’t know I was at the time, and so I was in, if I wanted it. I said no.
I surprised myself. There was a great corporate job, high-level, finger on the pulse type configuration, etc. But as one of my coworkers pointed out, nobody wanted these jobs at CIDA. Ever. So I could go as a PM-03, or I could wait until I was more advanced in my career, and go at a higher level. There wouldn’t be much competition. Plus, I needed bilateral experience. I said no, and went to the Caribbean desk.
Now, some four years later, I was looking for an “out” from the Director-that-wasn’t-going-to-be-good, and the Corporate Secretariat was looking for their first-ever Senior Policy Advisor. A PM-06 position. Clearly senior. Clearly someone who knew the department. I fit the bill. I doubt anyone else even applied. I’m not sure they even posted it. I found out through the grapevine. So I moved to this new position on an acting basis.
r. Senior Policy Advisor, DM’s office, CIDA — The new position was to be the senior policy advisor job in the Deputy Minister’s office. Officially part of the Corporate Secretariat, I would start off with reviewing all memos to the DM or Minister from a “corporate” perspective. I hesitate to call it quality control, as it was a review of a combination of format, scope, and content. Part of their concern in creating the position was that too many “bad” memos were making it up to their office that then had to be revised multiple times, delaying processes, etc. Eventually, they hoped I would get that fixed and then move on to providing some extra capacity to review any and all corporate initiatives coming through the office.
For context, I started in January of 2005, and I was there for approximately eight months. When I started, I thought, “This is my ideal job.” I would be dealing with high-level stuff, I would see what was going on but not in the weeds, I would provide value-added on the corporate files, just as I had perhaps with the business case. Balancing policy, program, and corporate, this would be a great job.
I think my delusion lasted about 12 minutes. Then I saw the backlog of memos, about 75 in all, that had come in and just stacked up. I started going through them, and saw problem after problem after problem. Things that were glaringly obvious. Not individually huge, but collectively a challenge.
Take for example three project proposals going through all on the same program, let’s assume it was Pakistan for example. Simple enough. The structure of the memo was to start with a description of the relevant program, i.e. in this case, the Pakistan program. So I started to read them, the first one looked fine. The second one also looked fine, but the description was different than the first one. So was the third. Three memos asking for project approvals, all going to the Minister at the same time, and they all gave different descriptions of what the Program was trying to do. Was it egregious? Not completely. They were, at least, consistent. But why give the Minister three separate descriptions? Because they were written by three different analysts.
The first project was about private sector development. So the description emphasized PSD. The second was about the environment, and thus said the program was about the environment. And so on. Moving on to the next part of the memo, it said what the program’s priorities were in Pakistan. And again, all three descriptions were different. Now, even if the description of the overall program was slightly different, the priorities shouldn’t have been. These should have been 100% identical. Yet they weren’t. Three memos all saying the program had completely different priorities. And all three had been approved by the same Director, same analyst, same DG, same ADM. Four levels of approval after the project manager, and nobody had noticed all three were different? Did they have priorities or not?
One by one, they would have gone through. Put together, it looked like we were incompetent. We didn’t even know what our priorities in that country were, and yet we were asking for Ministerial approval. I moved on, these were relatively semantical, or at least easy to fix.
I got to the project details for one of the memos, and there weren’t any. It basically had completely vague descriptions about what we were going to do — I didn’t know if it was training, working with NGOs, direct budgetary support, or we were hosting a cultural festival. There were NO details. There was NO project. It was basically a notional idea, nothing concrete was included. It was like a placeholder.
I called a meeting with the analyst, a fairly senior guy. Showed him the three memos and he was like, “WTF? How did that happen?” Honestly, they had standardized paragraphs, but the project managers hadn’t liked them so they just edited it to make it sound better for their project. There had been a paragraph about the project in the third one, but they had taken it out so they weren’t “locked-in”. These weren’t small piddly projects. They were $15M multi-year projects. Each. I mostly met with him to just validate I wasn’t completely on crack. He confirmed I wasn’t, and told me to send them all back down.
Except I didn’t want to. If I sent a memo back down, it would go through the tracking system, and it would eventually wind up on the project manager’s desk probably in about 3 days. Assume two days, max, to fix the memo, and then it would start up again on its way back to my office. Call it a week to get back through the chain of command and process. Assuming there were no problems. So I could be delaying it for another two weeks possibly by sending it back down. And that was optimistic.
Instead, I sent an email to the project manager, copied to the analyst and director, DG, and ADM who had all signed, suggesting the improvements but noting that I was holding on to the docket. I didn’t need new wet signatures on everything, I just needed the revised document. If they were okay with the approvals, and within their branch structure it was up to them how to approve the revisions, just let me know when they sent me the new final version. Often I got it within a day.
No muss, no fuss. Just a revised memo. People kept in the loop for formal accountability. And the memo could be approved by me on behalf of the Corporate Secretary (eventually we got to that point) and sent directly to the DM’s office for actual formal approval.
The program people LOVED me. No returned dockets. They could come up to see me, hand me a new paper copy in some cases, and we would immediately put it in the docket and turf the old one. They couldn’t believe that was all they had to do. No huge delays. Just efficient continuance of their project approval.
I also started triaging the memos differently. Just for my own use, I created this simple little cover sheet where I would go through and check off some key features I was looking for. Like, for instance, was it a new project within our “social development priorities” and thus likely to be fast-tracked by the Minister. Was it a priority country? Was it a renewal or extension, or was it brand new? Was it urgent? Did the program have a recently approved country strategy that this project clearly fell within? All things that the Minister’s office cared about. I would do my analysis, make sure it looked good, tear off my cover sheet and send it on its way.
Except that one time, I forgot to remove the cover sheet from the docket. It got mixed in with the inside memos. And it made it to the Deputy. Who loved it. He thought it was a fantastic summary, and he said it helped him look for issues more quickly. In other words, he could see how much time he needed to spend on it and how fast he should approve it. It was speeding the approval process for him, so they started including them in the dockets for the Minister too. And her staff liked it. It was removed before it went to her, but often the docket would end up with a couple of notes copied over from my notes i.e. “Social Development Priority” or “Country Strategy In Place”. The backlog disappeared and some memos started to move more quickly.
Not all of them, but enough that I started to think about how to improve the memos so they could be written more easily by the project managers. So many of them were spending way too much time on stuff that should have stayed the same from memo to memo. A simple template for each program would have generated 90% of the text, and they should have only had to put in a couple of paragraphs for their project, and the memo would have been “ready”.
There was only small problem with that plan.
I was bored stiff. I was not seeing any of the high-level stuff I thought I might. I had expected to attend the Executive Committee meetings of all the VPs, even if only to see where they said, “Oh, and we have a big project coming this week” so I could watch for the memo when it came in and put it at the top of the pile. But there were some politics going on behind the scenes with a couple of other staff who didn’t really need to be there, but who liked being there. They had no real role, and if I went, they would have had to have been bumped.
Take for example the meeting notes. Someone else was doing them, and well, they weren’t very good at them. As a result, the Corporate Secretary and DM’s executive assistant had to spend a lot of time rewriting them before they could be sent. Which meant they were about three months behind. THREE MONTHS? In my view, minutes for those meetings should have gone out later the same day, or the next morning at the latest. I filled in one meeting when the other person was on vacation, I took the notes, did the summary and sent them to the Corporate Secretary. I checked in with her later in the day and she was embarrassed to explain. She asked me to close the door, and she said my notes had been perfect. She would have posted them immediately, but it would have made the other person look bad. So she had to wait until the other three months were edited in order to post mine.
Seriously? What was wrong with this picture?
We had a change in Deputy during my tenure, and we went from a long-time career civil servant to a fresh-out-of-the-private-sector newbie. It was interesting to say the least. His management style was killing people. He thought nothing of suddenly deciding to have an impromptu brainstorming session at 6:30 at night during a quick debrief session. Two hours later, he was getting warmed up, and the others were texting their spouses to say, “Save yourself! I’m lost!”. He also had no patience for administration. Yet he was the head of the organization that had to disburse $4B a year in projects, all of which required approvals.
As I got close to the summer, I got a chance to act as an Executive Assistant. She was an EX-01, and she was thinking of moving on. She wondered if I was interested in the job, so she recommended me to act for her while she was on holidays. I somewhat foolishly thought, “Okay, NOW I’ll see some of the policy stuff.”
I did see SOME of it, but honestly, if my previous job was about moving paper, my new job was mostly about making sure other people were moving paper. And giving us copies in support of the DM’s schedule. Which he didn’t like to keep to during the day. About the third day, following two days of chaos where he messed with the schedule ALL day, I decided, “Nope, today is the day we stick to the schedule.”
It started with an Executive Meeting from 9:00 to 10:00, and then he had a meeting at 10:00 with some outside people. I told him as he started the meeting that he had his next appointment at 10:00, and I would come into the Executive Meeting at 9:50 to give him his 10-minute warning. I announced this plan in front of ALL the executive team, and a couple chuckled. But at 9:50, I stuck my head in to say, “Okay, ten minutes, start to wrap up.” Very pointed. He looked at me like I had two heads. A couple of other executives looked at each other, and I could see their look — “I think he’s serious”. At 9:55, I popped in again, and said, “Okay, you’re down to five minutes.”
He said, “Okay, I’ll just need another ten or fifteen minutes…” and I told him “No, you have five. Your next appointment is already here and waiting. I’m giving you the hook at 10, and we’re staying on schedule today.”
At 10, I went back. I felt like a trained monkey, or an idiot, or both, but I was ready to fall on my sword. I had to try. I went back in and said, “Okay, time’s up.” The DM started to demur to tell me it would be another few minutes when one of the VP’s cut in. He said we should all help me keep the DM on schedule, and to that end, we should make sure we all ended meetings on time and didn’t waste the DM’s schedule. And then he closed his book, picked up his stuff, and left. Two other VPs jumped up and followed him out. The DM wanted to continue, but it was clear the meeting was over.
I rode him ALL day like that. I kept him on schedule. I was frantic, I was stressed, but everything went like clockwork. And I suddenly realized this would be my job if I continued. It was what he needed. Structure. At the end of the day, I gave him his homework for the night, things that needed his attention. Including some administration for his OWN employment that was outstanding four months. So much so that PCO was rattling their administrative sabres at us. I felt like it was a Yes, Minister episode and I was sending James Hacker home with his red boxes to do. I couldn’t decide if I was Sir Humphrey or Bernard.
As I left that night, I ran into the VP that had jumped up and left the room. I thanked him for the support, and he looked at me and said, “No, thank YOU for the support. We need you to do that or we’ll never stop this madness.” Schedules were crazy with him as DM, and the system was struggling just to deal with his management style. Everything would eventually adjust, but in the short-term, it was killing people.
But I had to be honest with myself…was this really wanted I wanted to be doing? Pushing paper? Making sure other people were pushing paper? I had no idea before I started there how much of the jobs in ADMOs and DMOs were just about process. Once in a while you got to deal with substance, but it was not the majority of the job. I thought it was going to be my dream job and instead I wanted out.
What I haven’t mentioned so far this post is that I did have an out. I had competed in formal competitions and the results were starting to come in. I don’t want to completely spoil the surprise, but I can’t help it. My days at CIDA were over.